If Kateryn Rochon is a little bit weary by mid-afternoon, it’s no wonder.
It’s field season for the University of Manitoba entomologist, who has embarked on a joint mission with the Manitoba Beekeepers Association to better understand tick-borne diseases. That means getting up at the crack of dawn to check traps set the night before, making sure animals aren’t held in the aluminum cages longer than 12 hours.
“But I have excellent students with me,” said the researcher. “I am always amazed that I have people wanting to work with me, because I explain to them everything they will have to do, the crazy schedule they will have and all the overtime and the horrible conditions in which they will work — and they are like — sign me up!”
The hope is that small mammals the traps net will reveal more about how Lyme disease is spread to humans via Ixodes scapularis, better known as the blacklegged or deer tick.
“One of the problems we’re finding is that blacklegged ticks are, relatively speaking, fairly new to Manitoba,” Rochon said. “We’ve had blacklegged ticks for a long time in the northeastern U.S., and at Long Point in Ontario, sort of the first established location here, but those two locations are very similar, the Prairies are not similar at all.”
How Manitoba’s climate, weather and ecology affects the life cycle of these arthropods remains unknown, said the researcher. When blacklegged ticks are active, and when they interact with the birds and mammals that act as disease reservoirs is crucial to learning more about how the arthropods transmit disease.
“So now, we are looking at when are the immature ticks active, when are the adult ticks active, so we can figure out if we have a three-year or a four-year cycle, and then depending on when each stage is active — the larva, the nymph and the adult — each of these different scenarios will have an impact on disease transmission,” she said.
What is known is that the range of Ixodes scapularis is expanding both northward and westward, increasing the likelihood humans will come into contact with them. And while blacklegged ticks prefer wooded areas with shade and moisture, such as riparian areas, they have also been routinely found in large urban centres like Winnipeg and Toronto.
“We are finding them in places where we would never expect them to be, so we’re trying to figure out exactly where are they and whether the Prairies will stop them? Or will they find a way to exist in these new or different environments,” she said.
While blacklegged ticks can also transmit anaplasmosis and babesiosis to humans, Lyme disease has been the central focus for Manitoba beekeepers who helped fund Rochon’s research, enabling her to get matching government funding.
“We’ve had a number of our association members that have been impacted by Lyme disease that they believe have been distributed by these ticks,” said Allan Campbell, president of the Manitoba Beekeepers association. “And in Canada it is very hard to get a diagnosis for Lyme disease.”
He believes that may be due in part to the fact that information on the disease and how it spreads is still relatively scant. But with beekeepers working on the front lines of tick habitat, the apiarist said the ultimate goal is to arm health-care professionals and researchers with better knowledge.
“We want people to know what to look for, and we want to know that it can be properly diagnosed and treated,” said Campbell.
In recent years more attention has been drawn to Lyme disease. May is Lyme disease awareness month and a bipartisan panel has been convened by the federal government to examine the issue.
The number of diagnosed and reported cases of Lyme disease has also been increasing in Manitoba. There were 11 cases in 2009, 38 cases in 2013, 46 in 2014 and 36 last year. The Canadian Lyme Disease Foundation has suggested that as many as 10,000 Canadians have the disease.
But despite growing awareness of the disease, Rochon said funding for research on blacklegged ticks is still very hard to come by.
“A longer study is very needed,” she said, adding her current two-year-long project wraps up this winter.